April 20th, 2009
10:11 AM ET

Into thin air

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/04/20/art.airline.crowded.passengers.jpg]

Ella Perlis
AC360° Associate Producer

Frequent fliers, you might just rejoice! Your flights may be delayed or canceled, you still have to pay a fee for extra bags, the snacks are lame, and drinks aren't on the house, BUT if you fly United Airlines, you'll never have to share a portion of your own seat with a fellow traveler again.

Recently, United announced a new policy for portly passengers. The airline's website says that if a person cannot buckle the seatbelt with a single extender and/or is unable to put the armrests down when seated, they will employ the “Passengers requiring extra space” policy. The first step is to relocate the customer to a seat next to an unused seat at no extra cost. No empty seats? That individual needs to upgrade the ticket to a more expensive, larger seat. No upgrade seats available? Apparently, that person would be kindly asked not to take that flight. He or she can then purchase another seat, for a total of two seats, for the next available flight.

United says this policy is not unique, and that other commercial airlines, including Southwest and Delta, have similar regulations. Still, in adopting the policy, United has renewed the controversy over what some call “Fat Fees.” My initial reaction was one of sympathy and embarrassment for large passengers. Coach seats are never comfortable, but if you're of a greater weight than the average person, it could be downright painful. In addition to the physical discomfort, there are the unwanted stares, muffled whispers, and now the fear of being asked to disembark. Yet a friend of mine expressed her enthusiastic support for the new policy. A self-proclaimed "Fattist," meaning she opposes fat people and fat culture, her candid response was that she prefers to travel without heavy people violating her personal space. Apparently, she isn't alone since United says this latest change stems from 700 hundred complaints they received last year.

Many believe discrimination against overweight people is acceptable because they believe weight is a choice. For some, that's true. However, there are medical conditions that can impact a person's size.

In fact, Canada last year passed a law called 'One Person, One Fare,' treating "severely" overweight people as disabled and therefore protected, but people who are "not disabled as a result of their obesity" are not protected. The doesn't make clear how to determine which category a person falls in, and nor does the Canadian Transportation Agency, so that leaves it up to the airlines.

And aren't there options other than booting overweight people off planes - or crowding people who are not overweight? Should airlines make the seats roomier, for example? Or provide some wider seats, or seat extenders?

And what about charging parents with screaming children? Sure, these parents are paying for each of the seats they occupy, but a wailing baby can be just as invasive as someone taking up space beyond their armrest. Should airlines be charging extra for those who fall asleep with their head dangling onto the seat of their neighbor (you know who you are), snoring and drooling throughout the flight?

What do you think? Are the airlines unfairly discriminating against overweight passengers or rightfully protecting the comfort of slimmer customers?

Editor's note: See Sean Callebs' report on airlines the challenges of carrying out this kind of policy.

Filed under: 360° Radar • Airline Safety • Ella Perlis
soundoff (31 Responses)
  1. Dirk

    If you are one of the "ever growing" few that would need to invade someone's space on a plane because of obesity through laziness, more than likely it wouldn't hurt to walk to your destination.

    April 21, 2009 at 11:29 am |
  2. Todd

    If the airlines start charging because you spill over your seat or can't fasten your seatbelt, how long do you think it will be before they start making seats and seatbelts smaller than they already are?

    April 21, 2009 at 11:19 am |
  3. Sandi

    Having been stuck in the middle seat next to a very overweight man, I applaud this new policy. If they need two seats, they should pay for them. People know if they are too large for the seat. If they are upfront about it when they initially purchase their ticker, there won't be any ushering off the plane or upgrades necessary. The seats are small. I want all the space I pay for. I don't want to be totally uncomfortable for the entire flight due to the weight of the stranger next to me. Kudos to any airline that puts this policy in place.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:49 am |
  4. colbert node

    Fat people know they are fat when they buy their tickets. They should by two seats then if they're flying coach. Problem solved.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:49 am |
  5. Mareike (in Los Angeles)

    I don't think that airlines should charge more for overweight people. If we think WE'RE uncomfortable sitting next to a "fat" person we should think for a second about how it feels for them.
    When we choose to fly we are almost always trading comfort for the convenience of getting to our destination a lot faster. Under the best of circumstances coach seats on airplanes are cramped with little leg room. It would be delightful if they made seats larger and with more space between rows but airlines are businesses that need to turn a profit. Fares would have to increase dramatically to do that and people already scream about high fares.
    Some folks are just complainers (likely the same people who send their dinner back at a restaurant) and they should not be allowed to dictate how airlines handle the extremely sensitive issue of overweight passengers.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:43 am |
  6. Dawn

    I think that this is a perfectly acceptable response (for now). In the future, if the airlines have to make larger seats to suit obese passengers, i will be fine with it as long as ONLY those seats are more expensive than the regular ones. Obesity is an epidemic in our country and it needs to be addressed properly-not accommodated. People who neglect their health cost us all more money with soearing healthcare costs and resources. People in the US understand one thing--MONEY. A "fat tax" might not be such a bad motivator. Higher taxes on ciggarettes has achieved great results in encouraging people to quit. Shedding pounds to save on airfare will do more good than harm.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:42 am |
  7. Dave

    I personally agree with United's new policy.

    I've been stuck on flights squeezed between 2 large people, having to lean forward the entire flight because their arms were in my space.

    Cant fit in one seat? You buy 2. I think it's perfectly fair.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:40 am |
  8. Alex

    It is about time. Two years ago I got squeezed into a middle seat between an overweight couple thinking they would have the middle seat to themsleves and could spread their girth out. When I insisted on putting down the armrest, and it couldn't be done, I had to insist on a different seat. Since no seats were available in coach, Delta bumped me to first class to avoid a scene. The last time it happened, again there were no seats available, so I was offered the next flight and a voucher. I came out ahead both trips, but it shouldn't have happened. I think grossly overweight people need to pony up the extra cash since they take up extra space. I don't know, maybe some extra wide seats, but not comparable to 1st class, should be offered for an additional 30-50%. My final thought, If I paid for a seat, I should get the whole thing.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:40 am |
  9. Yoli

    Airlines have gotten ruder and nastier than ever. There is no costumer service, there is no pleasant flight anymore. You pay to get insulted.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:39 am |
  10. mia

    As a frequent flier I'm elated with this change. I only fly United on occasion, but this problem is chronic on most airlines. After a long week of work at an offsite location, flight delays, flight changes, airport security, etc... It is awful to be stuck between people that literally ooze into your seat area. You can't get away and it is absolutely awful on longer flights. I understand the plight of people of large size, but that does not mean I have to give up part of my personal space (which I paid for) so that you can sit next to (on top of) me. Thank you United!

    April 20, 2009 at 11:37 am |
  11. sarah griffith

    i used to weigh in an 180 pounds. now, i weigh 115. i did it through
    grit and self discipline. you are what you shove into your mouth.

    and yes, i resent having some slob take up half of my seat in an
    airplane. infants wail but they are infants. fat people are fat because
    they eat too much. if you take up one and a half seats or two seats,
    then pay for it. if you ask for "seconds" in a restaurant, you pay for it.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:34 am |
  12. Erin

    I believe that any way you look at this, it is discrimination. Being fat, for most people is not a choice. I find it ironic that now, when like 75% of the american population is considered obese, the airlines start enforcing "fat policies." I mean economy seats are generally not even comfortable for the average sized person. Get a clue, airlines need to start making their seats a bit larger to accomodate the growing population of obese people. I sure do hope I don't gain another pound or two, I may not get to go the Carribean for my yearly vacations anymore!!!

    April 20, 2009 at 11:33 am |
  13. John

    I think it's easy to forget that passengers pay for a seat on the plane and transportation of your luggage. They do not pay for the right to be transported to another city. If a passenger takes up more than one seat, they should pay for more than one seat. I don't see this as discrimination, but rather preventing large passengers from stealing. I've seen plenty of passengers bring large musical instruments on board and pay for a seat for their excess fragile baggage. Just because large passengers excess baggage happens to be attached to their bodies doesn't negate the fact that they should pay for the space they take up.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:31 am |
  14. JonPeter Hartford, CT

    It is about time. People who need extra room need to get over the idea they can crowd other passengers who paid for their seats as well. I've been in the situation where I have given up a seat to move a person who was crowded unfairly and asked to be seated elsewhere. Most people are afraid to speak up, I'm not one of them and to their credit the cabin crews have dealt with the situation.

    If you can't fit comfortably in one space, in particular on a crowded flight, then you need to pay for the extra space. Clear and simple.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:30 am |
  15. Scotty P.

    I'll believe it when i see it. I live for the day when i am on a flight and get to watch our beloved flight crew all named Audrey wrestle off a "portly passenger." Really easy to make policy when you aren't the one enforcing it.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:30 am |
  16. Lauren

    What happens if someone is traveling on business and his or her company is not willing to pick up the extra cost? Come on, now, airlines - we know you need money, but is it really necessary to discriminate against overweight passengers? Companies aren't allowed to discriminate against weight unless absolutely necessary for the job, so why should airlines do it when business travel accounts for a large chunk of profit? The policy that the overweight passenger MUST upgrade and pay for it is ridiculous. Unless airlines start measuring girth at the gate, this will be left to the discretion of the flight attendants, who may have personal opinions on who's too big to fly. I see issues similar to the girl who flew in "inappropriate attire" coming to the surface.....

    April 20, 2009 at 11:30 am |
  17. Bryan

    I thank airlines for protecting the comfort of the vast majority of its passengers. I am not for discriminating against anyone and obese people have the right to utilize airplanes just like the rest of us. However, others shouldn't be expected to have to give up a lot of comfort for hours at a time in an already often crammed and uncomfortable situation on a flight exacerbated by being next to someone who takes up part of their seat.

    This is different than other disabilities. For example, I take the bus to work in Washington DC and when a disabled person on a wheelchair attempts to board, this takes a few extra minutes and no discomfort to other passengers than possibly changing seats or very occasionally standing for 5-10 minutes. Obesity's impact on others quality of life on flights can be dramatic and increase stress and great discomfort. Additionally, we are already subsidizing obese people. A person who weighs two to three times what I do costs that much more in fuel and resultingly higher fares.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:30 am |
  18. Mark

    I'm sympathetic to large passengers. But I don't see why I should pay $300 or more to fly on an airplane and have to be uncomfortable because of another passenger's girth, especially on a long haul. The airlines should bear the brunt of this, though. Equip airplanes with special seats that can accommodate larger passengers. These passengers also shouldn't have to pay upgrade fees.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:29 am |
  19. Chuck

    I feel that if you take more than one seat, you should pay for each seat occupied. Yes, I would love the seats to be roomier, but they aren't.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:27 am |
  20. David Ellis

    I believe it is fair to charge extremely overweight people extra fares as long as it is done humanely and with complete respect for the overweight passenger. Such policies should be clearly noted at the time the ticket is purchased to prevent on-board surprises and unwanted embarrassment. Practices like these ensure everyone's comfort on-board.

    A passenger's first choice should be a larger seat, if one is available. In the case of economy, the passenger should be required to purchase a second seat. Since weight is not always a choice, a decent airline would not charge full price for the second seat.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:26 am |
  21. Jerry Troyer

    United and the other airlines are in the business of transporting people from one place to another. Passengers pay fares to use this service, and are given the use of a seat for the journey. One pays for the service one receives. Each person pays for the seat he or she uses during the journey. I use one seat, and I pay for it. If someone needs two seats, they should be required to pay for two seats. This is not a judgment against fat people–this is a business. Isn't it logical to require people to pay for what they use? I believe so.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:22 am |
  22. Catrina

    So does this mean we can all complain about our space on a plane and they will accomadate our wishes? Like wailing babies, fidgety children who don't understand the boundaries of their space, someone's offensive perfume or cologne that invades my space, the guy in front of me who reclines his seat into my space, someone who wreaks of smoke and on and on. And why make larger people buy a whole seat? Why not pro-rate? If they are taking up 2inches of the next person's space then figure out what that 2 in. cost and give that to that person – LOL And what if there are 2 larger people and one empty seat who gets to sit next to it for free? Or should they both be sitting by it and split the cost. Oh I can see how well this is gonna work. Flights will be delayed, there will be lawsuits, larger people will stop flying and the airlines will eventually go bankrupt!

    April 20, 2009 at 11:20 am |
  23. Kelley Wright

    I personally feel that the airlines are discriminating against overweight people. I feel like the majority of people discriminate against overweight people.

    No one that I know of wants to be overweight. Losing weight is not easy. People who are thin and can eat everything they want and not gain a pound just do not understand what it is like.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:18 am |
  24. dave

    We pay a lot of money for a small space that is only made smaller by someone that doesn't fit in to their small space. The CDC reports something like 50% obesity rate in the US; do 50% of the population have genetic issues, endocrine or other, that would account for this alarming trend? Lifestyle choices, rather than heredity, are to blame here.

    The airline business is first a foremost a business; fuels are expensive. I am a big guy, 6' 2" 200. I would like to see the airlines charge for both size and weight; that's what package carriers do. It costs the airlines more to move my 200 pounds + 75 pounds of junk than it does to move a 50 pound child with a coloring book; why wouldn't I expect to pay more?

    April 20, 2009 at 11:16 am |
  25. Joe

    While I agree with the policy, my question is how do they determine how wide a "regular" seat should be. I have an average build and those seats can be snug. Also, I have sat next to "thin" people who encroach into my space.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:14 am |
  26. Scarlett

    As an overweight person, I'm well aware of the issues when I fly. I don't require a seatbelt extender and am almost always able to have the armrest down, but on a few airplanes, I can't quite have the armrest completely down. That's because I'm female and my weight problems are in my hips and thighs. Overweight men are much less likely to have this problem because of differences in weight distribution between the genders.

    Also, what if I'm sitting next to my husband on that rare aircraft on which I can't fully lower the armrest? He's not inconvenienced–will United still make me move, charge me for a second seat, or force me off the plane?

    Further, what about those who aren't overweight according to United's definition, but who are very muscular? I've sat next to a rugby player whose arm and shoulder were well into my seat, but because he could buckle his seatbelt and put down the armrest, he wouldn't face problems with United. There's a lot of gray space in this rule.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:14 am |
  27. emmi haddock

    i say, go ahead and charge extra for those parents whose children are ill behaved. so many parents nowadays use the excuse of "they're just kids". well, those kids are growing up to be ill mannered adults.

    i have 3 children under the age of 12. they are and always have been extremely well behaved in public, including airplanes. i did have some difficulty on one flight when my son was 18 months. i went to the back of the plane where there were less people and played with him. he was never screaming, but he wasn't sitting still either.

    as for overweight passengers – i'd have to say, i agree with the policy here.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:13 am |
  28. Terrie Lenhart

    My son has a problem with air travel, not because he is overweight, but because he is over-height. At 6' 51/2" tall the seats are too close and it is uncomfortable for him to sit that folded up for any length of time. Weight isn't the only issue with tight coach class seating. I"m sure his discomfort can make those he sits by uncomfortable as well. I believe the airlines should make a few seat accommodations for those who don't fit the size mold they feel one should fill.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:13 am |
  29. matt from detroit

    Makers of subcompact cars do not offer alternate seats for heavier people. If the car isn't comfortable the person purchases a different vehicle... The same should be true in a plane.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:11 am |
  30. Terry

    I don't think you can realistically compare a crying baby or a snoring person to a person who is taking up part of your seat that you paid for, as well as the seat they paid for. With a crying baby or noisy people, you can alway pop on earbuds or headphones and listen to music, etc.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:09 am |
  31. steve

    This isn't hard. Fat people pay for 1 seat. If they can't get their body into that 1 seat, then they're taking up 2 seats and need to pay accordingly.

    April 20, 2009 at 11:07 am |